St. John Bosco, like St. "Mother" Teresa or St. "Padre" Pio, is one of those whose names started to sound a little weird when their popular monikers got altered by the application of sainthood. He's often "Don" Bosco even though his name is John-actually-Saint-John-now, "Don" being the honorific applied typically to diocesan priests in Italy. I think this is because he, like they, like some others -- Thérèse comes to mind too -- is one of those saints that once you know them, you just sort of make friends with. The "saint" can feel a little embarrassing between friends. Or because a straightforward humility, a groundedness, is so much a part of their persona that they succeed in never feeling... I don't know, lofty.
Here's a repost about Don Bosco for his feast day, Jan. 31. In which I write about why I take him as my personal role model in his approach to child discipline.
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My personal parenting/discipline ideal has always been to avoid punishing kids.
I get the impression from other people that the idea alarms them, because it sounds a lot like "avoiding discipline;" perhaps it calls to mind the stories of parents who insist their offspring can do no wrong. You know, the kind who sue the school when their child is suspended for cheating on a test or something like that.
That's not my point. By punishment, I mean those arbitrary unpleasantnesses inflicted in return for misbehavior: the spanking, the grounding, the confiscation. Mrk and I aren't what you'd call permissive parents. We try to be authoritative, if not authoritarian. We use the term "obedience" with the kids and are clear about what it means and why it's important. But (this is our ideal, mind you, not always the way we manage to make it work) we try not to get to the point where we need a "punishment" in the first place.
We try to let them experience the consequences of their actions, insofar as it isn't dangerous.
- Didn't pack an extra dress like you were supposed to? Well, I guess you'll be wet and uncomfortable now that you've run through your friend's sprinkler in your clothes.
- Refused to eat your lunch at lunchtime? Ooooops, snack time isn't till 3:30, I guess you can have some of these plain almonds I keep in the car for emergencies.
- Shrieked at each other in the car while we were running errands? After all that, I (honestly) don't feel anymore like taking you out for lunch, so instead we're going home and having tuna sandwiches.
On the occasion when something truly egregious happens -- such as when one of my kids came to me and admitted that a long string of perfect scores on math assignments had been faked -- consequences are meted out rather than merely allowed to happen; but we really try to have it make sense. In the case of the spurious perfect scores, since I had no way to know whether the child understood the material, the child was assigned double math lessons for as many days as the lessons had been faked, each day doing the regularly scheduled lesson and at the same time re-doing one of the lessons from before. That plus a long conversation about honesty. And dangerous misuse of a tool around here is very likely to result in revocation of privileges to use said tool until competency and proper respect for risk is demonstrated; that's just common sense, not a punishment.
It was difficult for us to figure out when our first was very young, but we hit our stride eventually, and he grew out of the normal frustrations of toddlerhood into an earnest child and now a delightful teenager, and that has given us a lot of confidence as we continue to bring him up, him and the four that have followed. It's true that I yell more than I wish I did, and lose my temper. It's an ideal I fail to measure up to. But I still strive for that "no-punishment" ideal.
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I notice, however, that this isn't language I tend to hear from my fellow Catholic parents much. Indeed, at more than one parish I've seethed while listening to a priest (including in the homily at my daughter's baptism) cheerfully recommend vigorously and frequently spanking small children.
I think this is an American Catholic phenomenon, borne of being caught between a decadent permissive culture and an army of evangelical Protestants -- in many ways, serious American Catholics are constantly playing "keeping up with the Bob Joneses," and so, for better or for worse, we have been inculturated with what I personally see as a break-the-child's-sinful-will, thou-shalt-honor-us-because-of-the-ten-commandments sort of attitude toward child discipline.
The exceptions are the super-crunchy attachment parenting Catholics. Am I one of those? Sort of; as a young parent, AP wasn't good enough for me and if you were foolish enough to ask me about it I would talk your ear off about how I was into "CC" parenting, which stands for "continuum concept," which, well, some other time....
I did have plenty of role models for the way that I felt was right for me to parent my kids, but I lacked Catholic ones. And that's why I was so excited when I first learned about the educational philosophy of St. John Bosco. AKA "Don" Bosco (1815-1888) because that's what you call a diocesan priest in Italy. Here's Wikipedia on him, for some background:
At that time the city of Turin had a population of 117,000 inhabitants. It reflected the effects of industrialization and urbanization: numerous poor families lived in the slums of the city, having come from the countryside in search of a better life. In visiting the prisons Don Bosco was disturbed to see so many boys from 12 to 18 years of age. He was determined to find a means to prevent them ending up here. Because of population growth and migration to the city, Bosco found the traditional methods of parish ministry inefficient. He decided it was necessary to try another form of apostolate, and he began to meet the boys where they worked and gathered in shops, offices, market places. They were pavers, stone-cutters, masons, plasterers who came from far away places, he recalled in his brief Memoirs.
The Oratorio was not simply a charitable institution, and its activities were not limited to Sundays. For Don Bosco it became his permanent occupation. He looked for jobs for the unemployed. Some of the boys did not have sleeping quarters and slept under bridges or in bleak public dormitories. Twice he tried to provide lodgings in his house. The first time they stole the blankets; the second they emptied the hay-loft. He did not give up. In May 1847, he gave shelter to a young boy from Valesia, in one of the three rooms he was renting in the slums of Valdocco, where he was living with his mother. He and "Mamma Margherita" began taking in orphans. The boys sheltered by Don Bosco numbered 36 in 1852, 115 in 1854, 470 in 1860 and 600 in 1861, 800 being the maximum some time later....
In 1859, Bosco selected the experienced priest Vittorio Alasonatti, 15 seminarians and one high school boy and formed them into the "Society of St. Francis de Sales." This was the nucleus of the Salesians, the religious order that would carry on his work....In 1871, he founded a group of religious sisters to do for girls what the Salesians were doing for boys. They were called the "Daughters of Mary Help of Christians." In 1874, he founded yet another group, the "Salesian Cooperators." These were mostly lay people who would work for young people like the Daughters and the Salesians, but would not join a religious order.
Bosco's capability to attract numerous boys and adult helpers was connected to his "Preventive System of Education."
Don Bosco explained his "preventive system" in an essay, "The Preventive System in the Education of the Young," which can be found here. It begins by contrasting his "preventive" system with the "repressive" system. The "repressive" system, he says, has its place "in the army and in general among adults and the judicious, who ought of themselves to know and remember what the law and its regulations demand."
The repressive system consists in making the law known to the subjects and afterwards watching to discover the transgressors of these laws, and inflicting, when necessary, the punishment deserved.According to this system, the words and looks of the superior must always be severe and even threatening, and he must avoid all familiarity with his dependents.
In order to give weight to his authority the Rector must rarely be found among his subjects and as a rule only when it is a question of punishing or threatening.
But Don Bosco's system is different:
[The preventive system] consists in making the laws and regulations of an institute known, and then watching carefully so that the pupils may at all times be under the vigilant eye of the rector or the assistants, who like loving fathers can converse with them, take the lead in every movement and in a kindly way give advice and correction; in other words, this system places the pupils in the impossibility of committing faults.
This system is based entirely on reason and religion, and above all on kindness; therefore it excludes all violent punishment, and tries to do without even the slightest chastisement.
"Excludes all violent punishment, and tries to do without even the slightest chastisement" being what I was going for all along, I was so glad to find this.
The basic idea is that children are closely supervised at all times by leaders who care for them, model good behavior, encourage reception of the sacraments, participate in their games, and converse with them frequently about behavior norms in a way that "appeals to [their] reason" and "generally enlists [their] accord." Close supervision and "forewarning" means that there is little chance for a child to commit a fault. Don Bosco believes that young people misbehave, initially at least, because of inattention, not malice:
The primary reason for this system is the thoughtlessness of the young, who in one moment forget the rules of discipline and the penalties for their infringement. Consequently, a child often becomes culpable and deserving of punishment, which he had not even thought about, and which he had quite forgotten when heedlessly committing the fault which he would certainly have avoided, had a friendly voice warned him.
To apply this system Don Bosco lists several principles of education and discipline.
1. Close supervision by the people entrusted with the children. "[The Rector] must always be with his pupils whenever they are not engaged in some occupation, unless they are already being properly supervised by others."
2. Moral teachers who actively lead the pupils to and in each new place or activity. "Teachers, craftmasters, and assistants must be of acknowledged morality... As far as possible the assistants ought to precede the boys to the place where they assemble; they should remain with them until others come to take their place, and never leave the pupils unoccupied."
3. Allow rowdiness and physical activity. "Let the boys have full liberty to jump, run, and make as much noise as they please. Gymnastics, music, theatricals, and outings are most efficacious means of obtaining discipline and of benefiting spiritual and bodily health. Let care be taken however that the games... are not reprehensible. 'Do anything you like,' the great friend of youth, St. Philip [Neri] used to say, 'as long as you do not sin.'"
4. Encourage and promote, don't force, the sacraments. "Frequent confession and communion and daily mass are the pillars which must support the edifice of education, from which we propose to banish the use of threats and the cane. Never force the boys to frequent the sacraments, but encourage them to do so, and give them every opportunity.... [L]et the beauty, grandeur, and holiness of the Catholic religion be dwelt on..."
"Avoid as a plague the opinion that the first communion should be deferred to a late age... When a child can distinguish between Bread and bread, and shows sufficient knowledge, give no further thought to his age... St. Philip Neri counseled weekly and even more frequent communion."
5. Exclude bad materials and trouble-making people. "[P]revent bad books, bad companions, or persons who indulge in improper conversations from entering the college. A good door keeper is a treasure for a house of education."
6. Brief daily reflections -- a sort of community examen. "Every evening after night prayers before the boys go to rest, the Rector or someone in his stead shall address them briefly, giving them advice or counsel concerning what is to be done or... avoided. Let him try to draw some moral reflection from events that have happened during the day... but his words should never take more than two or three minutes."
7. Love before fear. "An educator should seek to win the love of his pupils if he wishes to inspire fear in them. When he succeeds in doing this, the withholding of some token of kindness is a punishment which stimulates emulation, gives courage, and never degrades.... With the young, punishment is whatever is meant as a punishment.... in the case of some boys a reproachful look is more effective than a slap in the face would be."
8. Do not shame children. "Except in very rare cases, corrections and punishments should never be given publicly, but always privately and in the absence of companions."
9. Employ patient reason and religion. "[T]he greatest prudence and patience should be used to bring the pupil to see his fauly, with the aid of reason and religion."
10. No corporal punishment. "To strike a boy in any way, to make him kneel in a painful position, to pull his ears, and other similar punishments, must be absolutely avoided, because the law forbids them, and because they greatly irritate the boys and degrade the educator."
11. Clear communication of expectations. "The Rector shall make sure that the disciplinary measures, including rules and punishments, are known to the pupils, so that no one can make the excuse that he did not know what was commanded or forbidden."
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I think these principles of Salesian education and discipline are sound ones that speak for themselves, principles that seek to form and transform human nature rather than to fight against it, and principles that respect and elevate the dignity of both child and educator. When I discovered Don Bosco I felt I'd finally found someone who was truly on my side.
If only I'd known about him when I was having to make post-baptism chitchat with Father Spare-the-Rod!